Tuesday, May 27, 2008


an interview with Diana Webb
DW: Describe your life, Bill, before you discovered the world of Zen and haiku.

BW: Born 1942, the first of three kids, each of us born two years apart. My dad taking advantage on leave to father us during the latter part of the war. War babies they called our generation. I had a double hit of scarlet fever during infancy. As a consequence, I was a late developer and didn’t learn to read properly until around ten or eleven. I was fortunate to have a sympathetic teacher who helped me out in writing and art. I remember writing a couple of science fiction stories, my teacher encouraging me to make use of my imagination. But I have to confess that these school days didn’t mean a lot to me. But I did discover the works of Homer which opened up a whole new world for me.

DW: I understand that you became interested in Zen and haiku through reading Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in 1959 and started writing haiku that year. What in Kerouac attracted you?

BW: The thing about Kerouac was his concept of “spontaneous writing” and how, through his prose, I came across Buddhism and haiku, and that led me on to the works of Suzuki and Blyth. Kerouac was a big influence on me and my generation, especially his side-kicks, Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen and Lew Welch, the original Dharma bums. As far as I am aware, Kerouac didn’t know of the haibun as a genre but many passages from his prose, for me, certainly fit that mode. In a recent Penguin Poets collection, Book of Sketches: 1952 – 1957, Kerouac writes “sketching . . . everything activates in front of you in myriad profusion, you just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words and write with 100 % personal honesty.” In those days, I doubt that he knew of Shiki’s “sketching” method.

DW: What was it that led you from an interest in Zen to becoming, in 1972, the first Zen monk ordained in England?

BW: Check out Summer Dreams: American Haibun and Haiga 3, for “The Early Days of Throssel Hole Priory,” which is a kind of hagiography and written in response to one of the monks who requested that I do a write up on those days.

DW: You went to the USA to train for the Soto Zen priesthood. On your return to England, you said you were hit by “apathy and complacency” and “imagined a situation in a near future when there would be only a few people left struggling with their vision and their poems." In what ways did writing haibun become part of that struggle and of your Zen life as a way of meditation?

BW: When I returned from Shasta Abbey, I was very much on a “high” from al that meditation. While there, I started writing poems in a surrealistic mode. There’s an old Zen saying that before you start, mountains are mountains, then mountains are no longer mountains, and finally mountains become once again mountains. So maybe I was in that second stage which the French surrealists describe as being “the marvelous.” Now and then, I slip into a surrealist haiku mode.

DW: In the BHS Haibun Anthology 2005, David Cobb refers to a style of haibun pioneered by Bill Wyatt, “an engaging patchwork quilt of classical and modern quotations and did-you-know information, in which the author is unobtrusive but pops up from time to time as the ‘link man’ or commentator.” An example of this type of haibun – “Spring Ephemerals,” written about 20 years ago – describes a journey you made to find scarce and rare Breckland wild plants and may have been one of the first haibun written by an Englishman. To what extent were you influenced by the style of Basho’s travel haibun in writing this?

BW: I've always been interested in botanizing, having fallen in love with the works of Andrew Young, 1885-1971, one of our most neglected poets and botanical explorer, and John Clare, 1793-1864, another inspiration through his poetry and natural history writings. I had a bunch of friends interested in bird watching and wild flowers and we would do trips here in England and on the continent. Rather than just make a list of our findings, I hit on the idea of writing up journals in the style of Basho and his predecessors. For the Japanese, this became an art form. They would visit sacred and historical places, making notes of what they observed, interspersed with haiku or tanka. The Greek lyric poets have always been an influence on my haiku, especially those fragments from Sappho. So, in many ways, I see that lyrical influence in my haiku.

DW: How do you think you have brought together the two influences of Basho and Kerouac in your work?

BW: Hopefully it's just the spontaneity. First thought, best thought (though we might have to go back and do a bit of tidying up!).

DW: Some of your haibun are about travels in Greece. How have you managed to incorporate both the world of Hellenic myth and the world of Basho in your haibun?

BW: My poems stem from the worlds of Herakleitos and Diogenes in Greece to Chuang Tzu and Han Shan in China. Basho, Issa and Buson encounter the cosmic fragments of Sappho and the Greek lyric poets. Bodhidharma has lunch with the cicada immortals. Sappho, with all the associations of the Japanese word sabi (loneliness), comes out of the past and tugs at my heart. The birds of the air and the flowers of the field – do they listen to our songs and paint us with colours?

DW: Some of the haibun written in the West now are very different from Basho’s Rucksack Dispatches and your own “Spring Ephemerals,” moving away from the chronicling of the simple life-style of the traveling Zen monk, with its celebrations of birds and flowers, to explorations of human relationships and the struggles within them. How do you feel about this development?

BW: Western haibun has to be an ongoing process. A lot of what I see appears to be something out of a creative writing course. No soul.

DW: In many of your own haibun, the haiku seem to play the crucial role of creating a recurring sense of the elusive spirit of Zen within nature, amid the day-to-day practicalities of traveling. What for you, Bill, marks the proper balance and relationship between haiku and prose in haibun?

BW: For me, haiku highlights the preceding prose, capturing that magical moment.

DW: What do you think will be the future direction of haibun in the West?

BW: From what I see, it could go anywhere, Maybe we need another name or definition. I stick with old Ezra Pound and let's “make it new.”

DW: Do you still feel as you did in the 70s that the future may hold a situation in which only a few people will be left struggling with their vision?

BW: Everybody should stick with their vision. But at the same time, realise that our visions change. I am no longer the person I was in the 70s. Next year, my vision could equally change. The only reality in life is change, but who's prepared to accept that.

Before I was born
washing jade in muddy water
I knew nothing else.

1 comment:

Owen Bullock said...

Thankyou Bill and Diana. I really enjoyed this intereview, especially the reminder about writing with 100% personal honesty and writing with soul.

All the best to you both,
Owen Bullock